…and to All a Good Night?

First, some (contestable) definitions. Our habits become conventions when we negotiate and then share them with others, and become custom when they sink deeper to take on a regulative role within the life of our community; these customs have something like a self-perpetuating power, and outlive the contexts that gave them birth and made sense out of them, mutating in the transition from context to context, at least intermittently demanding verification or reaffirmation.

Here, I was originally going to explore, loosely, the curiosities associated with the secularization of Christmas — Christmas as a custom. I am forced to cut this short, however, with no guarantee that I shall be able to return to it soon, as the semester has begun in full swing. Here are the first two of the five sections of the original.


First, an attempt to clarify the three key terms above: habitconvention, and custom. (The boundaries between some of them, and between numerous imagined instances of them, are very blurry, but without reference points, we cannot think about these things well.)

Running every morning at 5 AM is a habit.

That Monday night is “pizza night” in so-and-so’s family’s house is a convention. That all the members of an extended family have gradually agreed to go to Aunt Kelly’s house every Thanksgiving is a convention; that Jane always (and only) sits in the window seat in the second row of History class is also a convention; merging traffic lanes in a zipper pattern probably is, too. (You’re officially a jerk if you violate these conventions, and there may be more than merely scorn coming your way if you do, also.)

The celebration of birthdays in a culture is a custom (the details about when, where, and to some degree how birthdays are celebrated can be conventions), as it culminates in our collectively shared value judgments about the unique value of each individual, ritually initiates new members into this judgment, and ritually re-affirms this collective affirmation for established members. [1] I have read or heard it said that customs are habitual convention, and conventional habits. This understates things. Customs are more than just this, as they have an almost institutional power, and have embedded in them values (e.g., birthdays emphasize the unique value of the individual apart from the family or any collective — more tribal and/or collectivist cultures don’t usually celebrate them) that are perpetuated by inducting people into the practice of the custom itself, which usually happens from a young age. (I have also read some assert that languages are customs; this is possible, though I am not sure.)

Conventions are usually learned as new skills are learned (e.g., zipper patterns are learned while driving, although the value of fair play undergirding and supporting it is learned earlier, through the institutions like Pop Warner and Little League, which are almost customary). Most customs are experienced by members of a culture as “simply there” as far back as one can remember. Customs make a people; there can be no people without shared customs, for otherwise the many –the multitude– fragment and fractal into so very many autonomous sub-groups. If “the center cannot hold“, there is no “we, the people”. In his Imagined Communities, Benedict Anderson notes the phenomenon of a whole local language-group reading a newspaper at the same time; this shared habit rises to the level of a “custom”, and he himself, apparently following Hegel, even likens this custom to morning prayers. In so many ways, the custom –together with other customs– is foundational in the making of a people as a people.

If customs are to be stable, they must have public anchors that secure sameness for these customs across generations, such as texts and rituals of a piety (with their gestures, sounds, and words) or the rules and equipment of a sport — and we haven’t even said anything about the embeddedness of any custom within a larger cultural canopy of symbols and values (e.g., Little League habits of fair play and the underlying value of “good sportsmanship” lending to the convention of zipper patterns of merging in traffic). Meaningfulness increases customs’ stability, for important parts of a whole cultural project are found more vivifying, illuminating, and foundational than others, are treasured more than others, or are more universal and universally commendable than others, bring more social cohesion and flourishing than others. Customs can also be the point of greater conflicts, as the meaningful hinges of shared habit-space can be dragged down into the process of negotiation appropriate to convention — especially when more foundational customs are torn away (imagine whether anything like zipper patterns in traffic could survive if there were no institutions and customs such as Little League to teach fairness-as-equality — nothing like this really exists in the Iliad). As they move from context to context, place to place, generation to generation, the mutations and transitions that meaningful customs suffer generate attention, sometimes conflict, and sometimes care, even if the attention is poor, the conflict insurmountable & badly conceived, and the care is sloppy. These transitions are sometime (often?) not even noticed at first; different customs survive these mutations with varying success, and some cannot be successfully transplanted.

I had meant to finish writing this earlier, during the Christmastide of 2016. The 7th of January is Christmas on the Old Calendar (i.e., the Julian Calendar; the Julian Calendar or “Old Calendar” is an inferior technology that mistakenly thinks that the 25th of December happens on the 7th of January, having no way to account for the creeping calendrical drift between the actual year –which is not an exact number of days– and the calendar year — which is); my American parish church is (bizarrely, frustratingly, sadly) on the Old Calendar. Saturday the 13th of January 2018 was the Leavetaking of Nativity on the Old Calendar (Nativity-tide or Christmastide is an eight-day event in the Byzantine world, unlike the twelve-day affair it is in the West). I didn’t finish this post in time last year. At any rate, I came to begin to write this as a result of several conversations I had with others during the 2016 Christmas season, for those conversations made me wonder about the fate of the habit, the custom, of Christmas in the wake of its secularization.

I mentioned in my About page that I aim to deal with Christianization and then de-Christianization; on the approach to the Christmas holiday, however, and now in the wake of it, I cannot help wonder whether de-Christianization is (A) incomplete, (B) can never be completed, or (C) is not really de-Christianization at all, but the absence of elevating any religious institution to the level of being established — that is, a public institution, in the same tier of institutions as the State and the School system.

Questions emerge. What are we publicly to do with historically religious feast days? We cannot seem to ignore them. A set of thoughts from some recent experiences and reads follows, then, loosely knit together around the question of the secularization of holy days.


In 2016 I spent the New Year’s weekend with my wife and three other Russian families who grew up in Soviet Russia. They were all (but one person) very religious; one of them taught Orthodox Sunday School. It had toasts such as they would have seen in Soviet films, numerous courses of traditional Russian food, and a Yolka. [2] Adults and children watched cartoons about Dyet Maroz [3] — who is “Grandpa Frost”, “the same as Santa Claus” one devout Russian Orthodox laywoman casually explained, until I started asking questions. Did she personally want to identify the two as functional mythical equivalents? It is interesting that many of the Orthodox I know (here, again, mostly converts) would like to separate the figure of Santa Claus from the stories surrounding the liberating gift-giving of the historical early bishop Nicholas, so I was curious. Also partaken of were the annual New Year’s message from the Russian President (the Soviet and post-Soviet equivalent of the English Queen’s Christmas message), trashy Euro-pop music with “happy new year” refrains amidst other things. It was pretty tame.

It was also very secular. Curiously, they were baffled by my very American uninterest in New Years. [4] They were also unsettled by my American enthusiasm for Halloween. [5] It was interesting that there were no Church-specific practices here; I needed to prompt people for the prayers at meal; though we were all Orthodox and shared a house, no one said any of the cycle of the daily prayers together; no one sought out or went to the Divine Liturgy on Sunday morning; there were neither Advent nor Christmas hymns sung (Orthodox often/usually call Christmas “the Nativity”; Russian Orthodox & other Old Calendar churches celebrate the 25th of December on the 7th of January for a tangle of different reasons, partly because of an obsolete method of constructing the calendar); people distributed gifts at the “Yolka”; the children repeatedly and enthusiastically greeted one another and us with “Happy New Year!” and “It’s 2017!”

It was very pleasant, and everyone had a good time. The weather was perfect, and I got to snowboard and snowmobile on the ideal snow. Yet all the while I couldn’t help but think how odd it was for Russian Orthodox families, all of whom were serious about their faith, to be repeating a deliberately and anti-religiously secularized holiday with more gusto and feeling than they would Christmas (which we in the West celebrate as the primary holiday of the season — there was, I’m often told, suppression of the public celebration of Christmas in Soviet Russia by the State, and the State transferred the props, mood, and festivities of the Feast to the New Year’s event). What’s more, they celebrated New Years with more gusto than Christmas even though they would say, on paper, that the latter is more important. Customs are essential to bind a people together, after all, and it became clear to me, while there, that the people that I was involved in celebrating the New Year’s with were “the Russian people”, and that “the Orthodox people” is an ecclesiastical-canonical fiction, for the habits and customs by which the Church, as a distinct body, persists as a body, as a culture, were not in circulation, were not primary and controlling habits. What mattered were the stock customs of a group of people who shared a language and a history; the Orthodox Church is not such a people, apparently. [6]

Even in a situation where alternative customs should be in play (if one is going to be habituated in accordance with what one professes to be — in this case, Orthodox), and override what one grew up with, these older habits continue, because they are part of a people who continue them. It may be that to neglect the reality of the peoplehood of this people (vi&., Russians — but we may as well say “Americans” or “Chileans” or “Romanians”), and the priority of such a national people over other associations and memberships (including church memberships), is false consciousness. It is not clear that the children and grandchildren of long-distance nationalisms will continue this habit of primarily belonging to another nation. I don’t think they will; I believe these imported habits and customs will mostly die, and some fragments of them might continue. That is, unless they work very hard to keep up a rather exclusive sectarian bubble, to keep up an artificially high level of Russianness in their homes (speaking Russian mostly or exclusively, reading Russian books, watching Russian media, keeping mostly Russian and/or Russian-speaking friends, &c.), and unless they return to Russia frequently to refuel their sense of connection to that land and that media environment. (Comparatively, no matter how much Irish-American folk feel themselves to be Irish, in the absence of a shared history and especially a shared language, the Irish do not see Irish-Americans as Irish, because Americans have their own customs of dress and speech that mark them off as a separate people from the Irish, because Irish is not known in Ireland really at all, let alone in America among Irish-Americans, and because Irish Americans do not know the land of Ireland, do not renew their Irishness by pilgrimages to the motherland — not the way that the Russian Americans I know usually renew their Russianness by keeping a tight-knit circle of Russian friends, by perpetuating the Russian language, and by annual return trips to Russia, by frequenting and supporting Russian institutions of language, art, and worship, &c.)

Modern media allows for widespread habits to be celebrated by small gatherings, so long as all plug into “the event” by means of widespread media distribution, such as Putin’s New Year’s address. Otherwise, a custom, and a culture, require at least a clan or a small village. Here, the habits are perpetuated so long as there is a “We, Russians” identity that overshadows any other identities a person might have. There is an audience for such media because there is a people; there is a people because there is a language shared. (There is no “natural audience” for a YouTube video of Beowulf in a reconstructed Old English; the people have moved on, as has its language.) No language is universal; languages are inherently exclusive, and people-making. [6] If a recent New York Times article by Loyola professor Michael Khodarkovsky is correct, a Russian effort towards linguistic unification seems to be deliberately engineered by the State, to make a single nation out of multiple language-groups that would otherwise splinter. The State of Spain has already done something comparable, in many respects, with the would-be nation of Catalan. If this review is correct, even race and nation (and racial customs) are being leveraged by some Han in China against the current multi-ethnic multi-lingual vision of Chinese nationalism that prevails there. When American people become Orthodox, they recognize that this identity is connected to a history and a place and a nation other than their own, and appropriate this foreign nationality, and so one hears former American Baptists say things like “these people still don’t understand what the sack of Constantinople means to us” (watch that video until at least 18:00 to hear some degree of closure to the story). This is a fiction. The “us”, here, is not ecclesiastical (as the convert would like to think of it), but national. (A nation, I will maintain, is not a state — which is why we use hyphenations like “nation-state”.)



The fabulous John Russon, in his helpful article “Heidegger, Hegel, and Ethnicity: The Ritual Basis of Self-Identity” (The Southern Journal of Philosophy (1995) Vol. XXXIIIthe article can be found here for free online) writes of custom and customary law (for all customs are law-like in their operations) that

Law is the basic phenomenon of collective agreement about our codes for how we will confirm or discredit each others’ views about who each of us is. If I and another both accept the same law, then I know that my law-abiding action must be recognized by the other in the same way as it is recognized by me, and so on. Hegel is primarily concerned with the kind of law anthropologists call “customary law,” that is, that form of social experience in which one is committed to a set of values shared by the other members of one’s community, but where these values, these laws, are completely habitual and function without self-conscious reflection or enforcement. Indeed, Hegel sees some form of this habituality of value […] as the foundation of any community: it is our habitual adherence to customs which allows us to recognize ourselves as an “us,” as a “we,” for it is when I act according to the customs we all automatically adopt that my action is a representative for all of us. It is these customary laws, then, which define a single identity for the different members of the community by dictating canons of action and of interpretation. This single, shared identity, is the real decision-making power behind the actions of the members.

When I behave according to custom, I am doing what I find myself compelled to do: precisely how custom functions is by not requiring to be explicitly and self-consciously posited, but by guiding action automatically because the agent is thoroughly habituated to the law; thus the experience of custom is the experience of the need to act in a particular way just because “that’s how it’s done.” When we share a custom, it means we each recognize a certain system of values as “just the way it is,” as the unquestionable, indeed, obvious, character of reality. The custom dictates for us our action and our acting in accordance is our recognition of its legitimacy, just as the shared commitment to this custom by others dictates their recognition of the action’s legitimacy. In sharing customs, then, we have collectively adopted a source for our actions the meaning and legitimacy of which we all collectively recognize. […] [C]ustom […] is precisely constituted by the acts of mutual recognition. In this communal life, the custom defines who I really am, and this self is the same for all of us.

The boldface type in the first paragraph, above, was added by me: it is not in the original. Russon writes about self-consciousness needing mirrors to confirm self-identity, and finding this –or not– in the encounters with other people, who are doing the same. The lawlike nature of custom forms the bed of rice for the curry of self-conscious establishing of identity, which can only be acquired with others — if one disputes this, one has no further to look than the communal nature of language as fundamentally shared, and as necessary to fully develop one’s particularly human self-consciousness.

I found a number of things that I disagreed with in Russon’s article, but it was quite wonderful (it’s going on my bookshelf, rather than in the trash). I do not claim, however, to adhere to his definition of custom in any strict sense, nor shall I here engage with the many nuances of Dr. Russon’s article.


A “Yolka” is literally “a pine/spruce” tree, so I understand — basically a Christmas tree, but never called that in Soviet Russia, and still called merely “Yolka” among Russian-speaking Orthodox and creepy American converts to Orthodoxy who have an obscene attachment to everything that appears exotic to them.


“Dyet” is one syllable — the “ye” in “Dyet” is even one letter in Russian, and pronounced at once similar to how the “jö” is in “Baby Björn”.


In the States, New Years is a pale cousin to Christmas, and while families often get together to try to stay up to watch the ball drop in Times Square, this isn’t much of a highlight, most adults fall asleep before the ball drops, most kids are doing something else anyway; New Years is mostly an excuse for young people to party.


The Orthodox in Russia have been seeded with lots of Protestant Fundamentalist literature of the worst and most superstitious kind, and some –many?– see demons around every corner. It’s embarrassing to read most of the pseudo-historical assertions of Orthodox websites about the pop culture practices of Hallow e’en, repeated word-of-mouth as though it were hard historical research. This social tendency undermines any such claim to tradition on the same basis, and may reveal what kinds of social dynamics are often in play with such authority claims (e.g., “what is the Orthodox position on X?”, answered with similar pseudo-history that’s nothing other than a poorly re-hashed & ill-understood narrative from, through, and to a non-specialist.)


By making Orthodox habits the practice of a monastic center, and setting the Church as the sacred anchor for a national culture — the Church as a heritage for “this” people — the Church is permissive about who is and is not among her ranks, by neglecting to use Christian habits as markers for membership in a distinct and trans-national people. We did not watch the Pope’s or Ecumenical Patriarch’s New Year’s message.

There is no “turning back the clock”, however, and it is perhaps –perhaps– impossible for the Church to become such an international sect again, with membership of her own comparable to national membership and belonging. Such is the power of the national model. The boundaries of the people and the boundary of the Church were one and the same in Western Europe for so long. The Church –by which I right now particularly mean “the national churches”– has become, it would seem, in all areas of her traditional dwelling, the custodian of the (rightly or not) remembered traditions and traditional norms of the local ethnos that preceded the modern nation that developed from it. This is rather amusing, as Christianity is decidedly universalist and eschatological in orientation.


12 thoughts on “…and to All a Good Night?

  1. This is like a bottom less pit
    I will never get there
    Great to see you
    Doing what you do
    Dissecting a frog
    Once was curiosity
    Now a doctor to cure
    Just dropped by to see what condition
    My condition was in, As briefly Sheldon

    Liked by 1 person

  2. On habits, customs, traditions and their persistence (sometimes beyond the understanding of those who partake in them), see also Shirley Jackson’s short story, The Lottery.
    On secularization of Christmas: I don’t think Christmas has been, or is about to be, destroyed. Rather, a parallel structure has grown up beside it, sharing its name. It is roughly analogous to the situation with civil and sacramental marriage although civil marriage arguably antedates sacramental marriage.
    “It was also very secular. Curiously, they were baffled by my very American disinterest in New Years.” I think, in this case, you mean “uninterest” rather than “disinterest.”
    On Irish-Americans’ separation from Ireland and its culture: It is true that many Irish-Americans substitute a pseudo-Irish culture kitsch culture for the real thing, there are some who maintain a substantial link to the real thing. I count several of these as friends.
    On assimilation: My own grandparents, three of them immigrants, immersed themselves in American ways but made very regular visits to their native land.
    On nations and states: “Nation” from the Latin “natum” does indeed refer to a group of people who share a common birth-heritage that may, or may not, be embodied in a state.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. p.s. “The boundaries of the people and the boundary of the Church were one and the same in Western Europe for so long…” In the microgeographic sense, the same was true of Puritan New England. The town *was* the parish. The selectmen *were* the vestry. Anne Hutchinson and her husband Roger Williams were convicted of heresy under the laws of the colony of Massachusetts Bay.

    Liked by 1 person

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